Lessons from MH17

UPDATED: 25 July 2014 at 16:41 GMT

 

The loss of flight MH17 is not about Malaysia ­Airlines.

It’s a particularly cruel irony that this carrier has lost a second Boeing 777 with everybody on board – again apparently through no fault of its own.

If this disaster is confirmed as the unintentional shoot-down it appears to be – unintentional in the sense that MH17 was not the intended target – the trigger-happy carelessness that led to it is horrific in its implications.

But this act was no less trigger-happy than the crew of the USS Vincennes when it shot down a scheduled commercial flight from Bandar Abbas to Dubai in July 1988. It was an Iran Air Airbus A300 over international waters in the Strait of Hormuz (Persian Gulf). The Vincennes made no attempt to identify the aircraft before shooting off two missiles. That killed all 290 people on board. The Vincennes was not in a combat zone.

For all its protestations that this event has nothing to do with Russia, the Russian government has been supporting the unrest in eastern Ukraine, and there is no reason to doubt satellite evidence that the fatal missile was launched from that separatist-held area.

It is ­almost beyond belief that Russian President Vladimir Putin would risk putting in rebel hands weaponry of this power without having control over its use.

Perhaps it will turn out not to be so, but at present Russia’s “explanations” for the shootdown have zero credibility.

And Putin’s unwillingness – or perhaps inability – to exert his influence with the rebels to enable professional investigators to carry out their work at the crash site has drawn universal condemnation at the UN, including by nations that normally stand by Russia come what may.

There are still reasons to be optimistic about the ability of a  high quality independent international investigation to come to useful, accurate conclusions about the downing of MH17 despite everything that has been going on.

The investigation must be carried out strictly according to the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s Annex 13, which governs standards for accident investigation, and the Dutch Safety Board (OVV) that has been allocated leadership of the international team is fully aware of this.

The investigation team can be effective despite disadvantages: the accident site was ­unsecured for a week or more, and is still unsecured now; flight data and cockpit voice recorders were in the hands of unauthorised rebel personnel for several days before they were handed over.

The UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch has been  tasked with downloading the recorders and passing the results to the OVV. The AAIB reports the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder have now been downloaded, and the OVV says the FDR has some damage but the recordings are sound and they do not appear to have been tampered with.

But the fact that evidence and equipment was not held in sterile conditions while awaiting professional investigation gives any nation that does not like the report’s conclusions the opportunity to dismiss them.

I hope no-one will stoop that low, but that is a faint hope.

Meanwhile, there is a case for reviewing the way ­airspace status over conflict zones is rated and disseminated. At present there is no standardised system.

ICAO is the only ­agency with the credibility to run such an advisory system, which can only ever be advisory anyway. No agency has the authority to close airspace except the sovereign state beneath it.

In the case of Ukraine, ICAO had not advised airlines to avoid its airspace. Ukraine itself had decided to close its airspace above the conflict zone below 32,000ft (9,000m). MH17 flew over at 33,000ft.

But a part of what the world can do to to make a future MH17 marginally less likely is to set up a system for ensuring that intelligence-based warnings are fed to ICAO by government security agencies. These warnings do not have to compromise the intelligence itself, but they must contain sufficient information to enable ICAO to allocate to specific airspace sectors a categorised risk level that the airlines understand. It would be advisory, and the final decision would still reside with the airlines.

It would be understandable if ICAO’s instinct was to shy away from this responsibility, but if does that, it must make public the fact that it is not in the airspace advice business.

States and airlines will then have to make their own minds up, as they do now, and there will be no global standard on which airline passengers can rely.

STOP PRESS 16:19 GMT 25 JULY 2014: ICAO HAS JUST ANNOUNCED A HIGH LEVEL MEETING ON CIVIL AVIATION IN CONFLICT ZONES AT ITS MONTREAL HQ ON 29 JULY 2014

, , ,

2 Responses to Lessons from MH17

  1. Stuart Buchanan 30 July, 2014 at 2:12 pm #

    Hi David,

    While I agree that ICAO should be taking the lead in disseminating airspace conflict information, national organizations have been stepping in to do what they can.

    For example, NATS/CAA* have had an active NOTAM warning against flying in the conflicted airspace for a number of months now. The current version is copied below.

    -Stuart

    Q) EGXX/QAFXX/IV/NBO/E/000/999/5300N01514W763
    B) FROM: 14/07/18 11:33C) TO: 14/10/18 11:30

    E) POTENTIALLY HAZARDOUS SITUATION UKRAINE AIRSPACE.
    UNILATERAL ACTION TO ESTABLISH A NEW SIMFEROPOL (URFV) FIR THAT
    INCLUDES BOTH UKRAINIAN SOVEREIGN AIRSPACE OVER THE CRIMEAN
    PENINSULA AND INTERNATIONAL HIGH SEAS AIRSPACE MANAGED BY UKRAINE
    CONTRADICTS INTERNATIONAL LAW AND ICAO ANNEX 11 STANDARDS. RECENT
    AIRCRAFT INCIDENT IN UKDV FIR CREATES FURTHER UNCERTINTY OVER SAFETY
    OF OPERATIONS IN THE AIRSPACE OF UKRAINE.
    IN ADDITION THE POTENTIAL EXISTS FOR CIVIL AIRCRAFT TO RECEIVE
    CONFUSING AND CONFLICTING ATC INSTRUCTIONS WHILE OPERATING IN THE
    DISPUTED AIRSPACE.
    UK OPERATORS FLYING INTO, OUT OF, OR WITHIN LVOV (UKLV), KYIV UKBV),
    DNEPTROPETROVSK (UKDV), AND ODESSA (UKOV) FIRS, AS WELL AS AIRSPACE
    IN THE SIMFEROPOL (UKFV) FIR THAT IS OUTSIDE THE LATERAL LIMITS OF
    THE AIRSPACE OVER CRIMEA, THE BLACK SEA, AND THE SEA OF AZOV SHOULD
    REVIEW CURRENT SECURITY/THREAT INFORMATION AND NOTAMS.
    THE CONTENT OF THIS NOTAM SAFETY WILL BE RE-EVALUATED BY 31 AUG 2014.

  2. Tony Bryan 18 August, 2014 at 1:38 am #

    A 300 tonne airliner carrying 300 passenger could vanish for 300 days. Is this OK? Hi David,

Leave a Reply